Falling Leaf (Short Story, 1,800 words)

My friend Joe made a simple Facebook status update about a girl walking into the cafe he was at with a leaf stuck to her shoe.  She removed it and tossed it outside, only for the wind to blow it back in.  He made a comment about it being poetic – and I saw a story in it.  Interesting how inspiration can frame a story.  This is the finished product.

Falling Leaf

by Aric Catron

The alarm began softly. It built to a crescendo. Normally, when she woke up, she would catch it before it reached full volume. Today, however, she was awake before the alarm – had been awake for some time – staring at the digital numbers as they ticked away. She didn’t feel any desire to stop the sound as it grew to headache levels. She was content to look at the numbers and wonder.

Two days. Only two days. It seemed longer – a lifetime, another world, or even a dream. It was now Saturday, and Susan gave her Thursday and Friday off. So, it really was two days.

She reached over and fumbled at the alarm. The room plunged into silence. Only her breathing. She stared at the ceiling. There was a small spider web on one of the light fixtures. She should clean that sometime. Not today, though. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe she’d feel up to it tomorrow. Today, like yesterday, she didn’t feel up to much of anything. However, she agreed, so she had to get up.

It was weird getting out of bed at eleven in the morning, even on a Saturday. She was normally an early riser. The bed just seemed comfortable for the last two days – it wrapped her, cocooned her, and protected her. Still, she said she’d be there, so she had to get up. She swung her legs over the side and slid to her feet. First thing was first: bathroom, shower, and then clothes. She needed to be there in an hour. Not much time for make-up, but she could do it. She was a pro at the fast make-up job.

She started the shower before sitting on the toilet. Give it time to get to the right temperature and fill the bathroom with steam. The fan remained off; she wanted the grey, foggy, mist of a steamy shower. Pulling her sweatpants down was awkward and unfamiliar. She normally slept in the nude. Not the past two nights. The clothing wrapped her and covered her, like the blankets.

Her eyes squeezed shut and her mouth hummed a tuneless song when she went. The song drowned out the betrayal.

She blinked when the water turned cold. How long had she been standing in the shower? Did she even wash? She couldn’t remember. The loofah hung in its place, apparently unused. She looked at the floor and quickly back up.  Don’t dwell on it.  She didn’t have enough hot water to enjoy washing herself now. Oh well. She stood under the water long enough to be a little clean, right? And, she didn’t have to touch or think about anything she didn’t want to.

With a towel around her body and another around her hair, she approached the mirror. It was fogged over, her reflection a blurry shade. She wiped away the condensation, succeeding only in smearing her reflection. Time to turn on the fan.. She could dry her hair and get dressed before doing her face.

In her bedroom, she stared at the clothes she chose the night before. It didn’t seem proper to wear something sexy. Nevertheless, she wanted him to see her strong, beautiful, in control. He needed to see his mistake staring him full in the face. She had to face her choices; he should face his.

The undergarments went first, then the dark, short skirt and fitting blouse. The shoes she waited on. No need to prance around the house in black heels.

The mirror was clear enough to finish her hair. She went with something pedestrian: comb it out and leave it. Straight, dark, and shining. Today was not a fancy day, no matter what she wanted him to see. She didn’t want to do make-up, even though she rarely left the house without it, but she certainly wasn’t going to show up without any. Not now.

Her phone went into the docking station by the mirror. Music sounded good. Music had been her companion for the past two days. No television, no Facebook, just her and her music. Edith Piaf. She bought and built an entire Edith Piaf playlist around one song – “La Mer”. She didn’t understand the lyrics, but knew it was the same song as “Beyond the Sea” – but in French. It was better that way. She didn’t know why.

Edith’s voice warbled and sang the song. Funny how the language of love was equally the language of loss.

Putting on her mascara and eyeliner was a task without thought. She didn’t have to see herself for most of it – and she chose not to. It was only when her pinky brushed some moisture on her cheek that she looked in the mirror.

A single tear ran from her left eye, through the fresh make-up, and trailed a dark smear down her cheek. The tear gathered the eyeliner and mascara like a dirty snowball. It ran dark and slow. Weird. She didn’t feel like she was crying. No other tears were welling. She probably should cry, she thought. But, she didn’t. She hadn’t. She wouldn’t.

The tear broke free from her face and she watched it fall and splatter black and sickly on the white porcelain. Another followed it. She dropped the pencil and braced herself on the sink, waiting for more. None came. Just two black flowers melting towards the drain.

A wave of pain came and went. The pills. She needed to take them. She straightened up, cleaned the mess on her face, and grabbed the bottle. The label was callous and dry. Her name. The name of the medication. The doctor who prescribed it. No hint of the weight behind it. She took two for good measure. They were as plain as the label. Tiny white eggs that went down her throat with a dry swallow.

She grabbed the phone, letting it continue to play music, and put her shoes on. A tasteful, double-breasted coat she normally reserved for work went over everything. No jewelry today. No need for adornments.

Outside, the wind was blowing, a fierce November wind. Crisp, cold, and filled with the promise of winter. Red and gold leaves danced and spun on the currents of air. One last dance before rotting into nothing.

Even though she knew, she checked the text messages to make sure she was going to the right place at the right time.

“Are you working?”

“Susan gave me today and tom off.”

“Can we meet?”

“Y?”

“We should talk.”

“No.”

“We need to.”

“Michael. Not today. Not right now.”

“Friday? Sat? When r u going back to work?”

“Work Monday. Saturday – yes.”

“So sat – say noon? At the coffee place by you?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, Autumn.”

“K.”

She didn’t know why he wanted to talk. He made his decision, she made hers. Nothing more to talk about. She really did not want to deal with him – no more than she wanted to deal with the people at work on Monday. She knew Susan understood, so did Michelle – Michelle had been there before. But what about Alex? He wasn’t exactly very modern in his ways – she was pretty sure he was the kind of guy who wished it was legal to burn someone at the stake for having sex out of wedlock. She knew Alex was going to, at the least, be thinking horrible things about her, maybe even saying them.  And the others – will they be snickering and talking about her behind her back? They probably already were. A bunch of whispered conversations with grave faces and solemn nods. There was no such thing as a private life in a small office.

She grit her teeth. What the hell do they know, anyway? It wasn’t their business. They could go to hell. It wasn’t really Michael’s business, either. He left her, after all, not the other way around. Not that she had any real expectations of a lifelong relationship with him. He was fun, but not very ambitious. She wanted to move up in the business and maybe even get her own one day. Not the kind of thing you do with a boyfriend who was just one step above a frat boy.

Her heels clicked on the pavement. The right one sounded dull, off. She paused, lifted her leg, and checked. Damn it. The rubber on the heel broke off. No wonder her shoes sounded like an old clock.  Another thing she would have to do when she felt like doing anything – buy some more shoes.

She continued down the sidewalk. People looked at her. One smiled. She forced a smile back. It felt like her lips pulled too tightly over her teeth. An older man looked her up and down. She wanted to hit him. He smiled at her. She bit her lip. In her mind, she saw her broken heel sticking out of his mouth. And blood. Lots of blood.  Not as much as you might imagine, however.

No blood. She shook her head. He frowned. She wasn’t shaking her head at him, but she welcomed the unintended slight.

Tick, tock. The heels clicked a stuttered rhythm. Another gust of wind caught her sideways, sending a bitter chill up the coat and racing across unprotected legs. The skirt was a bad idea for a November day in Washington. It disturbed a pile of leaves on the sidewalk in front of her. She stepped around the skittering flotsam of summer. Another cramp made her stop for a second. The pills hadn’t kicked in yet. They would soon, though. She righted herself and kept walking.

The coffee shop was up ahead. She paused to check her reflection in the window. She looked good – not ravishing, but attractive. She hated it. She wouldn’t let him see her any other way.

He made his choice; she made hers. She wasn’t going to give him any satisfaction of seeing her weak.

The wind caught the door as she opened it and pulled it from her grasp, surprising her. She recovered and stepped inside, pulling the door against the wind behind her. Her right shoe ticked on the hardwood flood, but the left made a muffled sound. She looked down.

One of the dying, dancing leaves stuck to her broken heel. She reached down, plucked it off, and tossed it out the door. Michael was sitting at a nearby table. His face was somber. Good. He didn’t deserve to be happy.

Another gust of wind came as she closed the door.

Unnoticed, the leaf danced around the closing door and back inside, settling to the floor, awaiting the inevitable entombment of the shop’s dustbin.

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